First draft of my research paper on Digital Literacy.
Over the past few decades we have observed a technological revolution in the way we store and retrieve information and spread that information through networks of computers. The transition has been from analogue storage methods to more efficient digital storage of information. At the sacrifice of the arguably more higher grained quality of analogue media, we benefit from the almost unlimited storage capacity of digital technology. The quality of digital information rendering has improved to a point where adoption of digital methods far exceeds analogue methods which are viewed as obsolete. One example is the near complete obsolescence of film based photography, which has been overtaken by digital image processing. The way we learn, communicate, work and have fun are all affected by this digital revolution. The term “Digital Literacy” is being used to describe a skill set for successfully participating in our modern society. Rather than having a definite meaning, the term is more useful in signifying a fundamental shift in how our world is changing due to changing technology.
In this essay I will look at the problem with creating literacies, why we should use the plural form digital literacies, some work to create frameworks around the concept, a thought about why we have settled on this term and my conclusion.
Firstly there are numerous ways to modify the word literacy with the adjective of your choice, and create a new ambiguous knowledge domain which is difficult to specify. Take “music literacy” for instance. A person who plays a musical instrument, composes songs, and has a good knowledge of popular music could easily declare musical literacy. It would be difficult to dispute this, even if they have limited knowledge of classical music and can not identify the composer of a particular symphony. The music scholar who can identify any piece of classical music they hear, would likewise claim musical literacy, even though they do not play an instrument and could not identify the popular song on the radio. It seems obvious that there can be many literacies even within one knowledge domain, you can not say there is only one kind of musical literacy. We have to define what we mean by the word “literacy” before we can begin to understand how we modify it.
Literacy is about the ability to read and write, but what does the “literacy” part signify in the term “digital literacy”? The first form of this term may have very well been “computer literacy” (Bawden, 2004, p.21). When computers were first entering the consumer market there was an initial functional level of competence users needed to acquire to be able to use them. Now that digital devices are more ubiquitous and users are generally more familiar and comfortable with using them, we modify the word “literacy” differently. We are now more focused on what we are doing with the computers and the information that flows through them. Not only are people using the term “digital literacy”, but there are other literacies like information literacy, media literacy, and network literacy. These can viewed as overlapping and related knowledge areas, but in some cases the different terminology is due to a regional, cultural or industrial bias. (Belshaw, 2011) For instance in Australia the term “digital media literacy” is used in government and educational documents. Norway has launched educational initiatives in the name of raising “digital competence”, rather than using the word literacy. Librarians are more likely to refer to information literacy while a social network user may call it media or network literacy. It seems that we are using the word “literacy” to signify either an understanding of something or a competency.
How is digital literacy related to all these other literacies? Information literacy is a concept well known in the area of library science. The ALA has been working on a definition for this term since the late eighties. (Bawden, 2004, p.21) The definition takes a linear step by step approach to “information literacy” including identifying the need for information, locating and accessing the information, evaluating, organizing and presenting it. It is very common to hear definitions of digital literacy which seem to be interchangeable with information literacy. You can see this on the English Wikpedia entry for digital literacy (accessed Sept., 2012) and in the work of the American Library Association’s Digital Literacy Task Force definition.
“Digital Literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” (http://connect.ala.org/node/140464 accessed Sept., 2012)
The information literacy definition is basically updated to include a digital or computer based context. The term media literacy has come into use, due to the broadcast like nature the Internet now exudes. Hosting text based resources along with video hosting, audio streaming and social networking sites. This might also cross over into “network literacy” which in one sense could relate to social networking sites, and in a another sense the networked structure of the Internet. These all seem to be aspects of the digital environment of which “digital literacy” might be used as an umbrella term.
In 1997, Paul Gilster wrote a book which he titled “Digital Literacy”, which helped bring the term more into focus. This book was published several years after the term Information Literacy had become popular and there is often some confusion between the terms digital literacy and information literacy. There are some overlapping areas where the two terms can become confused. One is being able to access information using digital devices and be able to critically evaluate that information. While the conceptual area of information literacy may go beyond the digital world, being able to utilize non digital information sources such as libraries and print and other forms of information archives. Since much of our information is digitized these days, and what non-digital information there is, there is usually a digital resource that describes or is related to it, so the terms seem interchangeable at times.
What Gilster expounded on in his book, sets digital literacy apart from information literacy and other literacies. Early on he poses the definition:
“Digital literacy is the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” (Gilster, 1997)
He goes on to describe digital literacy as a way of being, saying that it’s about mastering ideas, not keystrokes. Distancing it from the functional skills we formerly thought of with “computer literacy”, and also setting it apart from “information literacy” which can be viewed as something like a research methodology. Gilster takes a broad view of the concept and places digital literacy not only about computers and the Internet, but how to complement digital resources with other non-digital material. The book is a lucid account of what it is like to live in our multi-modal world. David Bawden gives a list of the core concepts he pulls out of the Gilster text, in his essay on the origins of the concept of digital literacy (Bawden, 2004 p.20):
- “knowledge assembly,” building a “reliable information hoard” from diverse sources
- retrieval skills, plus “critical thinking” to making informed judgements about retrieved information, with wariness about the validity and completeness of internet sources
- reading and understanding non-sequential and dynamic material
- awareness of the value of traditional tools in conjunction with net-worked media
- awareness of “people networks” as sources of advice and help
- using filters and agents to manage incoming information
- being comfortable with publishing and communicating information, as well as accessing it
Since digital literacy is clearly broad and complex, many researchers have attempted to build frameworks around the concepts involved rather than a straightforward definition. Eshet-Alkalai (2004) published a conceptual framework for “digital literacy” including these five major areas:
- Photo-visual literacy
- Information literacy
- Branching literacy
- Socio-emotional literacy
To summarize, “photo-visual literacy” includes the ability to understand graphical user interfaces and other visual symbols and icons. The reproduction literate person will know how to effectively copy and transform digital information while avoiding plagiarism. Information literacy as we have discussed before involves locating and evaluating digital resources. Branching literacy involves the ability to navigate information systems and comprehend information in a non-linear format. Social-emotional literacy includes the ability to understand relationships and interactions that take place over a network, and for instance the ability to detect “spam” or other sorts fraud that may be encountered in a digital environment. Each of these literacies are complex and could in themselves be a focus of further study and research. Eshet-Alakali defines digital literacy as a survival skill for the digital era. He argues that the meaning can be quite vague, concepts are easily misunderstood and due to the rapidly developing and changing digital environment it’s better to approach the concept in this manner of a framework.
Now that we see instead of getting simpler, efforts to define digital literacy have only exposed the complexity of the concept, current research has begun to refer to “digital literacies” in the plural form, rather than singular since it’s obvious there is not one kind of “digital literacy”. This is evidenced by the recent publication of books titled “Understand Digital Literacies”, “Digital Literacies for Learning” and by the work of Douglas Belshaw, a researcher who recently completed a PHD thesis on the topic of Digital Literacy. Belshaw has made his research available online and has expanded on the work by Eshet-Alakali to create an even broader framework of digital literacies. Belshaw proposes eight elements to digital literacy:
Notably, Belshaw cites many nuanced cultural differences between different online environments, so a cultural literacy is required. The fifth element “Confidence” is in regards to understanding that in some senses the digital environment is forgiving, you can always “undo” your changes for instance. It implies some functional skill and knowledge. The Civic element denotes the ability for the digital medium to affect society and democracy, and improve human learning, much as the Gutenberg printing press had a similar effect on the world when it introduced mechanical reproduction of text.
Whether we use digital literacies or digital literacy, one of the things we tend to overlook or not take seriously is the phonological aspect of literacy. Being able to read and write also implies the ability to interpret spoken language. The ability to speak, oral culture if you will, has an inestimable influence on media, language and culture. One of the reasons we settle on certain words to mean certain things is the way they sound when spoken. This is true of digital literacy, one of the reasons we have settled on this term is that it sounds good when spoken and conveys a very complex concept efficiently. We us the terms “ecommerce” and “email”, but we don’t use “eliteracy”, due to the fact when spoken, this word is easily confused with “illiteracy” which of course is not what we mean. (Bawden, 2004, p.25) It is not very far from the point of this essay to simply say we are using the term because it sounds right.
While technological innovation is still happening at a rapid pace, we are beyond the early stages of this transition to a digital environment. The way we read, write and communicate has undergone some fundamental changes. Over the past few centuries society has nearly eradicated illiteracy. The illiteracy we face today is in using and adapting to changing technology. While it remains difficult to define, I have found that digital literacies are more about comprehending our digital tools and environments than the functional skills involved in merely using them.
Bawden, D and Robinson, L 2002, ‘Promoting literacy in a digital age: approaches
to training for information literacy’, Learned Publishing, vol 15, no 4, pp297–301
Bawden, D and Robinson, L 2009, ‘The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies’, Journal of Information Science, Vol 35, no 2, pp. 180-191
Bawden, D, (2008) Origins and concepts of digital literacy. In: C. Lankshear and M. Knobel (eds), Digital
Literacy: Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang, New York
Belshaw, D (2011) What is ‘digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation. The Never Ending Thesis, accessed September 17 2012, http://neverendingthesis.com/index.php?title=Main_Page
Eshet, Y. (2004). Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia. 13 (1), pp. 93-106. Norfolk, VA: AACE
Gilster, Paul (1997). Digital literacy. Wiley, New York.